In 1918 Mary Turner, a young, married black woman and mother of two was lynched by a white mob in Lowndes County, Georgia, for protesting the lynching and murder of her husband. Mary Turner, who was eight months pregnant, was tied and hung upside down by the ankles, her clothes soaked with gasoline, and burned from her body. Her belly was slit open with a knife until her unborn child fell to the ground. Its little head was crushed by a member of the mob with his heel, and the crowd shot hundreds of bullets into Mary's body. Racially motivated mob violence by whites against black people in the American South was commonplace between 1880 and 1930, the lives of thousands of individuals including at least 159 women, lost.
When I first read about Mary Turner it sent me searching for more information. I became obsessed with the horrid details, unable to comprehend that level of cruelty. I wondered about the white men and women who stood by and did nothing, their glee captured in photographic images for posterity. White mothers and fathers who encouraged their little white children to watch because murdering a black man or woman was simply sport, as easy as stomping out an ant crossing the floor. They posed for pictures beside the dead bodies. They postured for friends and family and laughed as if they were celebrating a holiday. Who were these people? How did they lose their humanity? What did they gain in exchange for their souls?
Recently, Cindy Hyde-Smith, a Mississippi senator who faces a runoff against an African-American opponent, joked that if invited, she’d gladly take a front row seat at a public hanging. Her comment was met with applause and cheers. When criticized, she insisted there was nothing negative about her remark.
There was a time I couldn’t begin to imagine people who could be so callous. I believed things were different, that the fight for civil rights had served us well. I trusted that lessons had been learned and time had taught all of us a new normal. Like so many others, I was wrong. Racism is alive and well, rearing its ugly head with impunity. Racists have become emboldened by a political party who have abandoned the American people for their own selfish gain. Some white neighbors would sooner slit black throats now than wave and smile. They put brown babies in cages and criminalize parents who only want a better life for those they love. They build walls to keep migrants from crossing the border while white men use churches and night clubs for target practice. They claim one is a threat to national security and defend the other with excuse after excuse. They rage about making America great again when what they aspire to will take America back to a dark place of hatred for and violence against those they consider inferior and unworthy of their American dream.
We should all be scared. The devil is busy in ways that were once unfathomable. We make memes about white women who are offended by black people living their best lives when nothing about their threats is funny. We dismiss politicians who have thrown civility to the wind. Misogyny is trendy, sexism acceptable, and they vilify victims for ratings. Suddenly, bad behavior is encouraged in favor of a greater good that has nothing at all to do with being great. They speak their truth, no matter how vile, and then call it a joke if publicly shamed.
We should all be afraid. There aren’t enough of us standing up for what’s right. Leadership is slim and shaky. Only a few are willing to get into the fight and get dirty. We are failing the masses and our children and grandchildren will suffer most for our shortcomings.
The jokes aren’t funny. Those same grinning faces captured in our past have become the smirking faces in our classrooms teaching our children. They sit on juries and empower police who shoot down unarmed fathers and sons. They prepare the food in your favorite restaurants and clerk in your stores. They live next door and around the corner. The very thought of sitting on the front row as a life is swinging away in the wind excites them and fuels their fight to widen the divide. They’ve come out of hiding and now rule in the White House.
We should be very afraid. But we should also be prepared to fight for what is right and good and decent in this world.